A brief history of conspiracy theories

Throughout our history, Americans have been sure someone was plotting against us

ON JAN. 30, 1835, as Andrew Jackson exited a congressman's funeral, an assassin drew a weapon and pointed it at the president. The pistol misfired. The gunman pulled a second weapon. Though loaded, it too failed to fire. The cane-wielding Jackson and several bystanders subdued the would-be killer, an unemployed housepainter named Richard Lawrence. Lawrence later informed interrogators that he was King Richard III and that Jackson had killed his father. He was judged insane and committed to an asylum. Lawrence was a lone nut.

Or at least that was the official story. It wasn't long before two witnesses filed affidavits claiming to have seen Lawrence at the home of Mississippi Sen. George Poindexter shortly before the attack. Poindexter was an opponent of the Jackson administration, and pro-Jackson newspapers accused the senator of plotting the president's murder.

Some of Jackson's critics countered by suggesting that the president had staged the assault to gain public support, and that this explained why both weapons had failed. And many Jacksonians pointed their finger at Sen. John Calhoun of South Carolina.

When the Republican writer John Smith Dye described the crime 29 years later, he saw an even more devilish plot at work. Calhoun might not have been directly involved in the assault, Dye conceded. But Dye believed that Calhoun had been a part of a larger force, the Slave Power, that would have benefited if Jackson had been put in the ground. And he was convinced the Slave Power had assassinated two more U.S. presidents — William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor — and that another, James Buchanan, had narrowly escaped death at their hands.

Assassination theorists weren't the only Americans worried about conspiracies of slaveholders. Dye didn't coin the phrase "Slave Power." The term was common currency in the North, where it was used to describe the political influence of the planter elite. This was not in itself a conspiracy theory, but it often adopted a conspiratorial coloring. In the words of the historian Russel B. Nye, the Slave Power had an alleged agenda to extend slavery "to the territories and free states (possibly to whites)" and "to destroy civil liberties, control the policies of the federal government, and complete the formation of a nationwide ruling aristocracy based on a slave economy."

Meanwhile, Southerners had elaborate conspiracy theories of their own, blaming slave revolts, both real and imagined, on the machinations of rebellion-stoking abolitionists, treacherous land pirates, and other outside agitators.

It was a paranoid time. In America, it is always a paranoid time.

THE FEAR OF conspiracies has been a potent force across the political spectrum, from the Colonial era to the present, in the establishment as well as at the extremes. Conspiracy theories played major roles in conflicts from the Indian wars of the 17th century to the labor battles of the Gilded Age, from the American Revolution to the War on Terror.

Unfortunately, much of the public perception of political paranoia seems frozen in 1964, when the historian Richard Hofstadter published "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." Hofstadter set out to describe a "style of mind" marked by "heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy," detecting it in movements ranging from the anti-Masonic and anti-Catholic crusades of the 19th century to the "popular left-wing press" and "contemporary right wing" of his time.

The essay does contain some real insights, and if nothing else it can remind readers that conspiracy theories are not a recent invention. But it also declares that political paranoia is "the preferred style only of minority movements."

Hofstadter did not provide numbers to back up that conclusion. We do have some data on the popularity of well-known conspiracy theories, though, and the results do not support his sweeping claim. In 2006, a nationwide survey indicated that 36 percent of the people polled — a minority but hardly a modest one — believed it "very" or "somewhat" likely that U.S. leaders had either allowed 9/11 to happen or actively plotted the attacks. Theories about JFK's assassination aren't a minority taste at all: Forty years after John F. Kennedy was shot, an ABC News poll showed 70 percent of the country believing a conspiracy was behind the president's death.

Educated elites have conspiracy theories too. By that I do not mean that members of the establishment sometimes embrace a disreputable theory — though that does happen. I mean something far broader: The center sometimes embraces ideas that are no less paranoid than the views of the fringe.

Consider the phenomenon of the "moral panic," a time when fear and hysteria are magnified, distorted, and perhaps even created by influential social institutions. The sociologist Stanley Cohen sketched the standard progression of a moral panic in 1972: "A condition, episode, person, or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians, and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges, or deteriorates and becomes more visible."

An essential feature of a moral panic is a folk devil — typically a scapegoat who is not, in fact, responsible for the threat. The folk devil often takes the form of a conspiracy: a Satanic cult, a powerful gang, a backwoods militia. Cohen's case study is British, but there are American equivalents. One is the anti-prostitution panic of the early 20th century, which featured lurid tales of a vast international white-slavery syndicate conscripting thousands of innocent girls each year into sexual service. A former Chicago prosecutor claimed that the syndicate amounted to an "invisible government," a "hidden hand," and a "secret power."

Coerced prostitution really did exist, but it was neither as prevalent nor as organized as the era's wild rhetoric suggested. Yet far from being consigned to a marginal minority movement, the scare led to a major piece of national legislation, the Mann Act of 1910, and gave the first major boost in power to the agency that would later be known as the FBI. Within a decade, the bureau would be extending its purview from alleged conspiracies of pimps to alleged conspiracies of Communists, getting another boost in power in the process.

SUCH STORIES ARE missing from Hofstadter's account. The result was a distorted picture in which the country's outsiders are possessed by fear and its establishment usually is not. The essay had room for "Greenback and Populist writers who constructed a great conspiracy of international bankers," but it said nothing about the elites of the era who perceived Populism as the product of a conspiracy.

When scholars and pundits aren't claiming that paranoia is limited to the political extremes, they sometimes claim that it's a product of particularly harsh times. In 2009, the conservative writer David Frum offered that explanation for the popularity of Glenn Beck, a right-wing broadcaster with a fondness for conspiracy stories. "Conspiracy theories," Frum wrote, "always flourish during economic downturns."

He's right: They do flourish during economic downturns. But they also flourish during economic upturns. Frum was attacking Beck for his interest in the idea that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was building secret concentration camps, so it's worth noting that the very same fear was popular on the left during the booming '80s and on the right during the booming '90s. For the last few decades, elements of whatever party is out of power have worried that the party in power would turn fascist. (Beck eventually rejected the FEMA story.)

Even if you set aside purely partisan fears, the 1990s, a time of relative peace and prosperity, were also a golden age of both frankly fictional and allegedly true tales of conspiracy. There are many reasons for this, including the not unsubstantial fact that even at its most peaceful, the United States is riven by conflicts. But there is also the possibility that peace breeds nightmares just as surely as strife does. The anthropologist David Graeber has argued that "it's the most peaceful societies which are also the most haunted, in their imaginative constructions of the cosmos, by constant specters of perennial war." The Piaroa Indians of Venezuela, he wrote, "are famous for their peaceableness," but "they inhabit a cosmos of endless invisible war, in which wizards are engaged in fending off the attacks of insane, predatory gods and all deaths are caused by spiritual murder and have to be avenged by the magical massacre of whole (distant, unknown) communities." Many middle-class bloggers leading comfortable lives spend their spare time in a similar subterranean universe.

ON OCT. 30, 1938, the CBS radio network transmitted "The War of the Worlds." The broadcast, directed and narrated by Orson Welles, was based on H. G. Wells's famous novel about a Martian invasion of Earth, but the action was moved from Victorian England to contemporary New Jersey. It was and is a brilliant and effective drama, but the broadcast is famous today for reasons that go well beyond its artistic quality.

You might think you know this story. In popular memory, hordes of listeners mistook the play for an actual alien invasion, setting off a mass panic. The truth was more mundane but also more interesting. There were indeed listeners who, apparently missing the initial announcement that the story was fiction, took the show at face value and believed a real invasion was under way. But they do not appear to have been any more common than the people today who mistake satires in The Onion for real newspaper reports. The mass panic was a myth.

After the play aired, the prominent political commentator Walter Lippmann took the opportunity to warn against "crowds that drift with all the winds that blow, and are caught up at last in the great hurricanes," adding that those "masses without roots" and their "volcanic and hysterical energy" are "the chaos in which the new Caesars are born." As media scholar Michael Socolow put it, the legend of the Mars panic "cemented a growing suspicion that skillful artists — or incendiary demagogues — could use communications technology to capture the consciousness of the nation."

To "capture consciousness": what a chilling image. It's an idea that appears when dissidents warn that our leaders are using mass media to brainwash us. But you can also find the fear among those leaders themselves, who have a long history of fretting over the influence of any new medium of communication. If Orson Welles was cast as a wizard with the power to cloud men's minds, his listeners were imagined as a mindless mob easily manipulated.

The "War of the Worlds" story is usually told as a parable about popular hysteria — of a sudden spike in the sort of fear that Hofstadter's essay decried. But at least as much, it is a parable about elite hysteria — of the anti-populist anxiety that Hofstadter's essay exemplifies. No history of American paranoia can be complete unless it includes the latter.

From the book
The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory by Jesse Walker. ©2013 by Jesse Walker. Reprinted by permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.


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